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German Barbarism

The Times from 12 September 1914. A vicar passes on a letter from his son, an officer in the British Expeditionary Force:

Another poor girl has just come in, having had both her breasts cut off. Luckily, I caught the Uhlan [German cavalryman] in the act, and with rifle at 300 yards killed him. And now whe is with us, but, poor girl, I am afraid she will die. She is very pretty, and only about 19, and only has her skirt on.

The article continues in a similar vein with this and other letters from the front telling tales of rape, the use of civilians as human shields and other forms of German treachery.

But what is one to think? I suppose the first question is, is it true? And then, was it intentional (on the part of the Uhlan)? Are there any mitigating factors? And are the British any better?

On that last one I am inclined to think yes, simply because they are amongst friends.

And on the first one, I see little reason why an officer or a vicar would make it up. But someone else might. And The Times which backs the war effort might not be that keen on checking up. Or maybe the officer was suffering hallucinations through lack of sleep.

But on the other hand, the Kaiser’s men did raze Louvain to the ground, and massacre civilians at Dinant and use the ones they hadn’t massacred as human shields.

Ultimately, I am inclined to believe this. And I am shocked. And if I am shocked a hundred years later it is not difficult to imagine what people must have been thinking at the time.


24 comments to German Barbarism

  • mike

    Rape is a terrible crime, but cutting a girl’s breasts off is on another level entirely. It is the sort of thing the Japanese are said to have done in Nanjing.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    George Orwell, “Looking back on the Spanish War”:

    So also with atrocities. The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it. Recently I noticed that the very people who swallowed any and every horror story about the Japanese in Nanking in 1937 refused to believe exactly the same stories about Hong Kong in 1942. There was even a tendency to feel that the Nanking atrocities had become, as it were, retrospectively untrue because the British Government now drew attention to them.

    But unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda. The truth is that they happen. The fact often adduced as a reason for scepticism — that the same horror stories come up in war after war — merely makes it rather more likely that these stories are true. Evidently they are widespread fantasies, and war provides an opportunity of putting them into practice.

  • RAB

    I had two French Aunts (both dead now alas). They arrived in Caerphilly, aged 14 and 16, ostensibly to visit their Aunt, who had married a Welsh soldier during the First World War, and was now resident in South Wales. They were very exotic flowers for a little Valleys Market town indeed, and eventually married two of my father’s brothers. They arrived 2 months before Germany invaded France.

    They were sent out of harms way by their father, a Mayor of a little French village near Calais, who had served in the French army during WW1. He certainly believed that the Germans were capable of atrocities, as he’d witnessed them at first hand, and was not going to have it happen to his daughters at any cost.

  • c777

    There are no rules in war and inherently evil people who are normally held in check by society are suddenly released on the rampage.

  • JohnK

    Strangely enough, I believe that the French and Belgians were relived that the German invaders in 1940 behaved in a far more proper way than they had done in 1914.

  • Barry Sheridan

    C777 is being a little too harsh in implying that wars are fought without rules. While it is often true that fighting has been a merciless and bitter business with no quarter given, there are other instances where the combat has adhered to widely accepted principles that governed victor and vanquished. Of course it is not cut and dried, by the nature of things it never could be, however to suggest that those who have taken part are individuals whose inherent evil nature is set free from social restraint is a calumny. History is replete with those who have fought out of necessity with honour. These words do an injustice to many, some of whom we need to be thankful today.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    JohnK, yes, it says somewhere in John Terraine’s The Smoke and the Fire that the Germans behaved better in France and Belgium in World War II than World War I except when under political orders to the contrary.

    For those interested in this subject, and its still reverberating echoes to the present day, I also recommend John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial.

    Odd how the outbreak of war was commemorated in every conceivable way yet (for example) the massacre of 674 people at Dinant passed unmentioned, at least in the UK. Quite often when I have mentioned these events, openly admitted at the time by the Germans in order to diminish opposition, I am met with flat disbelief. It is true that there were a lot of lurid lies told, but the truth was bad enough.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Correction: the anniversary of the massacre of 674 people at Dinant passed unmentioned. It was mentioned quite a lot in 1914.

  • Mr Ed

    I suppose that it might be that the popular narrative of WW1 is so wholly tainted by the Left that many people do mot know of the barbarism of the Kaiser’a troops and do not wish to know anything that contradicts the narrative, the gist of which might be:

    ‘The poor other ranks died as the officers and generals dined well.

    The war was about competing Imperial interests.

    The German soldier, caricatured as ‘the Hun’ was as much a victim as the Tommy. He had a rather comical, almost endearing, spiked helmet too.

    The poor poets had a rotten time.

    The war was wasteful and only boosted the profits of the arms manufacturers who supported it.’

    The idea that the German and Bavarian Armies of WW1 were as capable of brutality as their children in the Heer or Wehrmacht were to prove to be, but they simply lacked their tailoring, logos and ‘brand recognition’, would be regarded as crude British propaganda and racist.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Mr Ed
    September 13, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Fair enough, but I’m not sure you can justify the start of the war by the conduct of the Germans during the war. To me, it still looks like everyone decided to have a war and went at it from there. Crips and Bloods, really.

  • Mr Ed

    PfP AFAIK, the UK and France didn’t violate Belgian neutrality or rape Louvain etc., so it looks to me as if Germany’s government decided to have a war and that did for Europe.

  • K. S.McPhail

    while not doubting the reality of the German atrocities in Belgium, my feelings toward them have always been colored by the elephant in the room of the Congo Free State(no pun intended). Only ceasing to exist some six years before the Great War, the incidents in the Free State made the incidents in Belgium in 1914 pale to a summer afternoon.

    And yes I know it was a personal fiefdom, but the administration and officer/NCO corps were Belgian.

    . . .and don’t get me started on the Free French Army in ’43-’44.

  • K. S.McPhail

    It is also interesting how the more extreme fabrications of 1914 mirror the extreme realities of the Casement Report e.g. mass mutilations.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    K. S. McPhail,

    Fair point regarding the awfulness of the Belgians who ruled (“preyed upon” might put it better) the Congo Free State, and the relative numbers killed in the atrocities in the two territories.

    However, it’s not as if the Germans at Louvain or Dinant were motivated by righteous outrage at the sufferings of people in the CFS, given that at about the same time they themselves had been carrying out the Herero and the Namaqua genocides. And General Von Trotha was acting in the name of the German government.

    There seemed to be a pattern at that time of the later arrivals in the European imperialism game acting in a particularly horrible way.

  • JohnK

    Mr Ed:

    I think you have described the “Oh What a Lovely War” view of World War One, which Michael Gove was trying to do something about before Dave the Green Tosser got rid of him.

  • JohnW

    How you persuade a peace-loving pacifist and humanitarian to become an outspoken ‘warmonger’?
    Simple, introduce him to the German High Command.

  • bob sykes

    I read Guderian’s memoire about Operation Barbarossa. It is a chilling read. Guderian regards war as a merely technical exercise cut off entirely from any political issues or moral concerns.

  • JohnW

    I am not averse to anyone going bonkers on an enemy – war is not a sporting activity.
    The main point we should ourselves is “what is the motive and what is the purpose of this war?”

    In the case of Germany in WW1 there was no justification for Germany initiating hostilities.

  • Anyone who tries to ignore the atrocities perpetrated by the German armed forces in both world wars is either completely ignorant of history, or trying to create a false narrative, or both. Terrorism inflicted on the local population was not only common, but policy, as any scrutiny of the actual field orders (which I have done) will prove. The Prussian militarism of the 19th century was drilled into draftees from Day One of their training (remember: three years of conscription was common during that time), and the suppression of the civilian population was part of the manual of operations, even during WWII. (The notion that only the Einsatzgruppen murdered civilians on the Eastern Front is fallacious — the Wehrmacht was an enthusiastic participant.)

    Add to the militarism the Hegelian principle of complete subordination to the will of the State (another feature of 19th-century Prussia), and you have a perfect setting for what was to follow in the field. Ignore too the bleatings of revisionists who paint the accounts of atrocities as Allied propaganda; once again, the practice was so widespread that the Kaiser himself issued cautionary orders of restraint to Moltke (once again, read the documents), saying that the actions of the troops in the field was giving too much propaganda fodder to the Allies. Note that no German officer ever went on record denying such actions (until after the various wars, for obvious reasons), which alone makes eyewitness reports of atrocities all the more credible.

    And finally, ignore the tu quoque red herrings about Belgian behavior in the Congo because that was, as noted, a factor of Leopold I’s megalomania and not formal Belgian military policy. Note instead the genocide of the Herrero tribe in German South West Africa during 1904-08 (population reduction from 27,000 to 2,400; percentage-wise, it makes the Congolese Belgians look like amateurs). Of course, this event was ignored in the West because the Herreros were just savages, after all; but the German military atrocities of 1914 in Belgium and northern France, the product of essentially the same military mindset, should come as no surprise.

  • thefrollickingmole

    In my time in immigration detention I got to talk with thousands of mainly Hazara (Afghan minority)refugees.
    Most of them had atrocity stories of one sort or another, and it struck me at the time, and still does, how much they sounded like WW1 propaganda.
    Babies on bayonets, burning people alive, rapes etc.
    Most of these blokes were unsophisticated so the stories were told in a very blunt manner, but its one thing to hear the story, and quite another to see the blokes back a solid mass of scar tissue from whipping (he was caught with a TV set).

    The impression I got was that there are only so many ways to inflict mass terror, and humanity is capable of instinctively picking up the template and applying it in any age.

  • Paul Marks

    Some of the stories were false – but many were true.

    It should be remembered that the intellectual rejection of the idea of universal good and evil in Germany was not a silly matter of a General dancing about in a tutu (before the Keiser and others) till he eventually died – in order to show the rejection of by the elite (falsely called “conservative” by ignorant BBC types) of “old fashioned” customs.

    The rejection of universal reason and universal right-and-wrong by fashionable German philosophy had profoundly influenced the “most educated nation in the world” (and they were the most educated nation in the world) from the top down.

    There were vast numbers of decent Germans – but their beliefs were seen as “old fashioned”, “out of date” and so on.

    And – this process of decay (of intellectual and moral decline) was not just hitting Germany, it was attacking the whole Western world (from the top down).

    The President of France in 1914 was quite unusual in understanding what was at stake – and rejecting not just specific German lies (such as the tissue of lies that was the German Declaration of War on France in 1914), but rejecting the philosophy behind it (around the world), and defending the universal principles of reason and justice.

    The point being not the Germans in 1914 were terrible (though some were), but unless this relativist PHILOSOPHY was opposed, vastly WORSE things would happen in the future.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    Maybe we should rename Einstein’s theory as the Theory of Absoluteness. The speed of light is the same speed for all observers, and this seems to be one of the two Absolutes in the universe- the other is that action creates an equal and opposite reaction.
    What a difference a name might make!

  • staghounds

    Of course it’s universal.

    I have never understood why people who have not been in wars resist the fact that the most awful cruelties are a part of its common currency, always. After all, if rending people into pieces is your official, government paid and socially praised job, what is a little rape or non fatal mutilation? T
    Whether those “atrocities” may or may not be official policy, or condoned by superiors is a fit subject for discussion, but they happen in every war and in every army to one degree or another.

    If the videos from various places right now don’t convince you, and the colour photographs from Yugoslavia a quarter century ago are too new, then look at Goya and Callot, who were working from life.

  • Staghounds, I can’t let your comment pass. Yes, it’s part of the human condition for an invading army to rape and pillage — in days of yore, pillage was the way footsoldiers were paid, and rape has always been a way to keep a defending force and its population cowed. The sex drive is also heightened when a man is confronted with death, so it’s natural, if not excusable, for young men to seek release after the battle is over.

    But the degree of atrocity is not only important, it’s all-important. It’s also critical to differentiate between rape and murder as the occasional aberration perpetrated by individuals, and deliberate policy dictated by government or military command. From an overall perspective, it’s the difference between a couple of yobs throwing stones at a synagogue, and an army unit rounding up all the Jews and leading them to the killing-pits of Babi-Yar.

    It is the mark of a civilised nation when its army can be restrained from wholesale pillage and rape — and it’s notable that the first man formally executed for rape of a native was during the Mexican-American War, when a “camp-follower” was hanged for rape, in accordance with General Winfield Scott’s field order which forbade such behaviour. This kind of policy was swiftly adopted by the armies of Western democratic governments thereafter, and murder or rape, at least, became common crimes punishable by court-martial. Of the armies in the West, the German Army was the only one for which terrorisation of the civilian population was policy.

    In the modern era, the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnian Muslims by Serbia is just another example of barbarism, except that the Serbian Army left such actions mostly to the “militia” forces, adopting a “see-no-evil” policy which is little different from the Germans of earlier times.

    Rape, murder and pillage may be universal, but offical sanction thereof (allowing, encouraging and abetting) is loathsome and uncivilised.